Nick Name: Gus
Birthday: April 3, 1926
Died At Age: 40
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan
Born in: Indiana
Famous as: Astronaut
Height: 1.65 m
Spouse/Ex-: Betty Grissom
father: Dennis Grissom
mother: Cecile King Grissom
siblings: Lowell Grissom
children: Mark Grissom, Scott Grissom
Died on: January 27, 1967
place of death: Cape Canaveral
Cause of Death: Accident
U.S. State: Indiana
education: U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School
awards: Distinguished Flying Cross
Congressional Space Medal of Honor
NASA Exceptional Service Medal
National Aviation Hall of Fame
Who was Gus Grissom?
Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom was an American astronaut, mechanical engineer, and United States test pilot who was part of NASA’s Mercury project. He became the second American in space as well as the first member of the NASA Astronaut Corps to fly in space twice. An Indiana native, Grissom held several off-the-wall jobs before enlisting as an aviation cadet in the United States military during the World War II. When the war ended, he got married and completed his education. He re-enlisted in the United States Air Force and in 1951, officially became a fighter pilot. During the Korean War, he flew more than 100 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with an Oak leaf cluster. Grissom later was picked as one of the seven Mercury astronauts. While his first mission, Liberty Bell 7, encountered several issues, the second one, Project Gemini was successful. Picked as one of the three astronauts for the Apollo 1 mission, he was killed along with the others in an accident which occurred during a pre-launch test for the mission at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The US government conferred on him the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on April 3, 1926, in Mitchell, Indiana, Gus Grissom was the second child of Dennis David Grissom, a signalman for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and Cecile King Grissom, a homemaker. He had four siblings, including an older sister who died before his birth. His other siblings were Wilma, Norman, and Lowell.
Since his childhood, he had been a member of the Church of Christ and remained a devout Christian throughout his life. He was also a member of the Boy Scouts’ Troop 46 and rose to the rank of Star Scout.
He began his education at public elementary schools and later studied at Mitchell High School. It was there that he met his future wife Betty Lavonne Moore for the first time. He and the rest of the Troop 46 Boy Scouts bore the American flag at school basketball games whereas she was part of the school band as a drummer.
During this period, he did several odd jobs, including delivering newspapers for the Indianapolis Star in the morning and the Bedford Times in the evening. He also worked at a local meat market, a service station, and a clothing store.
His interest in aviation also began to form around this time. He would often be found at a local airport in Belford, Indiana where an attorney, who owned a small plane, would let Grissom accompany him on his flights for a $1 fee. He also helped him learn the basics of flying.
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Gus Grissom was still a high school student when the World War II broke out. After he graduated, he joined the US military as an aviation cadet in the United States Army Air Force. He took a military entrance examination in November 1943. He began serving in the US army at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on 8 August 1944.
In the next few months, he also served at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, where he received basic flight training. By mid-1945, the war was coming to an end and Grissom, after being discharged from the military, got married, and sought jobs that would help him support his family. He worked at Carpenter Body Works, a local bus manufacturing business, but the salary wasn’t sufficient. He realized he had to complete his education to land better jobs.
He successfully applied for the newly instated G. I. Bill to pay half of his college tuition when he began attending Purdue University in September 1946. He graduated four years later, in February 1950, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Grissom rejoined the military after the Korean War started. He was one of the members of the first batch of cadets in the newly formed US Air Force. Upon the completion of his training, he was sent to Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Arizona. He won his pilot wings in March 1951 and was designated as a second lieutenant.
He first saw combat in February 1952. Dispatched as an F-86 Sabre replacement pilot, he flew with the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Kimpo Air Base. Having participated in over 100 combat missions, he brought down several enemy planes and received a citation for his “superlative airmanship”. He was promoted to first lieutenant before his transfer to Bryan AFB in Bryan, Texas, where he served as a flight instructor. During his time there, he would safely land a plane after the trainee pilot he was with caused a flap to break.
In August 1955, he enrolled at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio to study aeromechanics, graduating in 1956. In the same year, he attended USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and in May 1957, he came back to Wright-Patterson AFB, where he was appointed as a test pilot in the fighter branch.
Tenure with NASA
In 1958, Gus Grissom got an official teletype message which asked him to report to an address in Washington, D.C. wearing civilian clothes. He became one of the 110 military test pilots who were invited to learn more about the space program in general and Project Mercury in particular. While deeply intrigued by the program, Grissom was well aware of the fierce competition that would ensue for the coveted spots.
He was almost disqualified after it was discovered that he had hay fever. However, he was allowed to continue after it was concluded that his allergies would not be an issue due to the absence of ragweed pollen in space. The official notification stating that he had been picked as one of the seven Project Mercury astronauts reached him on April 13, 1959.
On July 21, 1961, he became the pilot of the second Project Mercury flight, Mercury Redstone 4, which he christened as Liberty Bell 7. A sub-orbital flight, it stayed up for 15 minutes and 37 seconds before splashdown. However, the emergency explosive bolts fired suddenly, blowing the hatch off from within. Soon, the spacecraft began flooding. Grissom escaped through the open hatch, jumping into the ocean. He would have drowned had he not been rescued on time.
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After astronaut Alan Shepard was ruled out from being a part of Project Gemini after being diagnosed with Ménière's disease in early 1964, Grissom was chosen as the command pilot for Gemini 3. The mission, which lifted off on March 23, 1965, designated him as the first NASA astronaut to travel to space twice. The flight consisted of three revolutions of the Earth and took 4 hours, 52 minutes, and 31 seconds.
Grissom joined Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee as the commander of the first manned mission AS-204. The men were allowed to put on the “Apollo 1” insignia patch. The flight was set for a launch on February 21, 1967. However, on 27 January, all three men were killed due to asphyxiation in a fire in the command module interior during a pre-launch test on Launch Pad 34 at Cape Kennedy.
While the authorities never found out what the source of the ignition was, they concluded that Grissom and his men died because of a wide range of lethal hazards in the early (CSM) design and conditions of the test. He was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
Awards & Achievements
During his illustrious military career, Gus Grissom received numerous honors and accolades, including Air Force Command Astronaut Wings, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Cluster, NASA Distinguished Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Korean Service Medal with two stars.
On October 1, 1978, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1981 and the US Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990 and was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame 1987.
He was a recipient of the John J. Montgomery Award.
Personal Life & Legacy
Following his discharge from the military near the end of the World War II, Gus Grissom married Betty Moore on July 6, 1945. They had two sons together, Scott (born 1950) and Mark (1953). His family was very important to him. Grissom always took time out of his hectic schedule to spend time with his wife and children. Betty made sure that the weekends were free by completing major chores and errands on weekdays. He often took his sons hunting and fishing, his two favorite pastimes.
As he has become a quintessential part of recent American history, a considerable amount of literature has been written on him, such as Carmen Bredeson’s ‘Gus Grissom: A Space Biography’ (1998), Ray E. Boomhower’s ‘Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut’ (2004) and George Leopold’s ‘Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom’ (2016).
He has been portrayed by numerous actors in both films and TV shows. He himself made a brief cameo in the Rock Hudson and Richard Long starrer ‘Air Cadet’ (1951), in which he played a US Air Force candidate for flight school at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas. Actor Fred Ward was cast as Grissom in the 1983 film ‘The Right Stuff’ whereas in the Oscar-winning ‘Apollo 13’ (1995), he was portrayed by actor Steve Bernie.
Grissom has been also depicted in the film ‘That Thing You Do!’ (1996), HBO miniseries ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (1998), and ‘The Astronaut’s Wives Club’ (2015), to name a few.
Grissom humorously named the first Gemini craft ‘Molly Brown (after ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown,’ a popular Broadway show at the time). It was also a reference to the sinking of his Mercury craft.